When Nabokov’s wonderful, delightful, lovely novel Pnin opens, Professor Timofey Pnin is on the wrong train. The entire introductory chapter follows his misadventure (entirely his own fault, as it happens), as he gets off the train, loses his valise, misses his bus, has what appears to be some sort of nostalgic heart attack, merging him with his own past — and yet finally, against all odds, Professor Pnin winds up where he is supposed to be, on time, giving a lecture to the ladies of the Cremona Women’s Club. “Some people –” says the nameless narrator –
and I am one of them — hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I should have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival at Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next.
It is here, not 25 pages into the book, that we come first into the presence of the narrator — a narrator who professes to be objective, to write what he sees, but who does not apparently like Pnin very much. It’s too easy to forget about this narrator.
For who could not like Pnin? Nabokov gives us tragedy and comedy on the same pages: Pnin with his insurmountable language barrier (his institution, Waindell College, is delightfully transformed into Vandal College; whiskey and soda, in one heartbreaking scene, becomes viscous and sawdust.) Pnin with his utter fidelity to the woman he loves, the treacherous and cruel Liza. Pnin with his unstinting generosity, his sense of gravity and formality, his whimsy. Pnin’s utter obliviousness to the creeping tendrils of academic conspiracies.
Many episodes follow the general shape of that introductory chapter. We are rooting for the lovable professor, with all his flaws; something almost goes horribly wrong; the avalanche stops mere feet above the town. For anyone who has read the book, I need not sketch the most breathtaking example of this, but need merely mention the punchbowl.
But things get worse for poor Pnin. His experiences become less a question of farce and slapstick — missed trains, wrong lecture notes — than of existential dread and personal sorrow about a desperately sad past. The narrator begins to intrude more and more often with his opinions, and we already know his feelings about happy endings. In the end, Pnin is actually forced to flee not just the college but the novel itself, destination unknown. (As a matter of fact, he winds up with a tenured position at John Slade’s college in Pale Fire, so that’s all right, but we’re not to know that here.) The narrator, with his penchant for doom, has driven him out.
Once again, just as with Pale Fire, I found myself dizzied with pleasure, reading this book. It’s not the same kind of book at all, nor does it give the same kind of feeling, reading it: it’s not a puzzle, and it’s not tricky. But at the sentence level, it’s totally brilliant, one thing after another sliding down toward you like… like joyous river-otters:
With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical instrument that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.
I mean! Or, what about this?
It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all that existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.
And it’s not just the language. It’s about sympathy, and exile, and understanding. In a book by Evelyn Waugh, another prose master, that combination of sweetness and cruelty would have turned out quite differently.
I know my first reading of this, or any novel by Nabokov is going to be quite inadequate. Still, I feel so glad to have given it a try, and to be primed for the real business of re-reading. I can’t recommend this more highly. I was happily carried away; a masterpiece.